With the most festive night of the year upon us, it’s time to look at places where Lexingtonians can ring in the New Year — or heck, any cold winter’s night — with some pretty fancy specialty cocktails, and have some terrific bar food to go with those cocktails.
This is a pretty subjective list, mirroring what I look for in a top-notch bar. And with all due respect to sports bars, college bars and neighborhood bars — and we have some great ones — what I’m looking for are the kind of cool, sophisticated places that are common in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans, but rare in Lexington.
I’m talking about places with subdued lighting, plush, comfortable chairs in secluded nooks, soft background music and servers who are well versed in their product.
Increasingly, bar designers have decided that communal tables and hard-back chairs in the center of a stark room, and lighting more conducive to checking your email than whispering sweet nothings in your date’s ear is the way to go. Perhaps it is for some, but if you’re looking for somewhere with great drinks, food and atmosphere, here are six suggestions.
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West Main Crafting Company
To my mind, this is the most exciting bar in Lexington right now — ticking all the boxes for what a cosmopolitan crowd is looking for in a drinking establishment.
The backlit bar itself is gorgeous, taking up one entire wall, while another wall has exposed brick and the front wall boasts large windows overlooking Main Street. You can drink at the bar while chatting up the mixology team or settle into one of the comfortable couches underneath two starburst chandeliers.
Where you can drink is impressive enough, but what you can drink is the real draw. West Main does their own take on the classics — for example, a Hickory Sour instead of a Whiskey Sour, where bourbon is infused with gently charred hickory wood and fresh sliced peaches.
While these classics are terrific, what’s really unique is the creativity West Main shows in changing its cocktail menu seasonally based on a theme. For the winter season, the menu focuses on Colonial America and spirits commonly found at that time. I had the Wassail (apple brandy, sherry, cider, apple shrub, fall syrup and monk bitters.) Paired with a charcuterie platter, it was nothing short of perfection. 135 W. Main St., 859-618-6318; westmain.com
Willing to venture further afield? Just across the Woodford County line past Keeneland Race Course is the Kentucky Castle. As befits a splendid castle, the décor and ambiance are regal, and in the cozy bar, the drinks are equally so.
Where else can you get a Henry VIII Old-Fashioned (Woodford Reserve bourbon with an orange and cherry); a Boleyn dry martini (Wheatley vodka and dry vermouth served with an olive skewer) or a Mary Bloody Mary (Ketel One vodka, Zing Zang, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and horseradish?) Just remember to drink responsibly so you won’t lose your head (like Anne) or cause someone else to lose theirs (like Henry and Mary.)
If you opt to eat in the bar rather than the more formal dining room, you can order from the same menu which features locally sourced meats and vegetables. You can go all out with Blackhawk Farms Filet Mignon or dial it down a bit with a Farmhouse Burger.
230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles. (859) 256-0322; thekentuckycastle.com
There’s a reason this bar has consistently been ranked among Lexington’s best. Beautifully situated at the front of the restaurant, the large mirrored bar is particularly striking this time of year, silhouetted in twinkling white lights.
While offering classics such as the St. Germain Cosmo (Tito’s vodka, St. Germain, Lime, Cranberry and Pineapple) and Heath’s Old-Fashioned (Maker’s 46 aged with orange zest, demi spice and maple and a dash of Peychaud’s bitters), Dudley’s bar team also keeps their inventory current. Their new spirits list includes both Castle & Key’s gin and vodka.
I chose a seasonal libation — a tangy pear spiced sangria. If you opt for this one, you’ll need a designated driver in your party as I’m willing to bet you can’t drink just one.
Dudley’s offers a special bar menu, but you can’t do better than the artisanal cheese platter.
259 W. Short St., 859-252-1010; dudleysonshort.com
Another spot that you would be proud to take a friend visiting from the Big Apple or the Big Easy for the holidays. Just entering Tony’s — with its grand staircase — gives one the feeling of playing in the big leagues. The bar, to the left of the main entrance, has scattered tables, with the prime ones being next to the floor-to-ceiling windows offering a panoramic view of Triangle Park.
As terrific as the ambiance is, the food and drink options are even better. My friend and I couldn’t decide which was the most lip-lickable — the Ginger Mimosa Martini or the accompanying bar sides — Prime Rib Sliders with caramelized onions and horseradish cream and Truffle Wedges (gargantuan in size) tossed in white truffle oil, Parmesan, herbs and sea salt and served with herb aioli.
401 W. Main St., 859-955-8669; tonysoflexington.com
Moving out of downtown to the Summit, you’ll find no shortages of places to drink, but I have to say I’m partial to J. Alexander’s. I started frequenting their outdoor terrace bar this summer because of the oh-so-deliciously-refreshing Lemon Drop Martinis.
On a recent Friday night, a friend and I stopped in to the inside bar, and even at a fairly early hour, found nearly every table either occupied or reserved (the message being: make a reservation.) I was tempted to go for the Lemon Drop again, but my friend urged me to try the Southern Martini, as it’s only found on the menu at the Lexington location.
They substitute Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Bourbon for gin or vodka, and add black cherry jam, honey syrup and angostura bitters, making it a bit sweeter than most martinis but eminently drinkable. If you would like a bar nosh, opt for the Shrimp Louis Salad, a towering concoction of jumbo shrimp, avocado and tomato in an iceberg boat, sprinkled with pine nuts and served with Kiawah Island dressing.
The Summit at Fritz Farm, 859-687-0099; jalexanders.com